Walter Hammond Righter (1905 - 1982)
An Illustrated Biography by his daughter, Frances Jean Righter Tucker © 2005
Chapter 4. The First ContractLast Updated : July 4, 2005
On Saturday May 7th, Reg Denny, Bill Banning who was Reg's financial advisor and Walter H. Righter boarded the Southern Pacific (train) and headed east. They arrived at Dayton in the evening of Monday, May 9th and checked in at the Biltmore Hotel. The next morning they called Wright Field and made an appointment for 10 am.
They were officially admitted by Maj. Richter, Chief engineer and turned over to Maj. Borum, Chief Materiel officer. He, with his assistant Capt. George V. Holloman, arranged a meeting before an engineering board.
They met Capt. Holloman who was second in command in Materiel and also head of the Special Weapons Unit with Lt. Rudolph Fink, his assistant had arranged the meeting to discuss Reg and Dad's proposal. They were all ushered into a conference room and seated around a large table. Reg, Bill Banning and Dad were seated at the table, separated by other Wright Field personnel.
There were at least ten others present including a representative from each branch of the service that might be interested in their project in any way. The chief of the Power Plant Section was there, an aircraft design expert, a representative of the Signal Corps and two or three officers from head quarters in Washington. Then the fun began.
First they spent considerable time explaining away a misconception that Washington had because of too much erroneous publicity in newspapers and magazines. 'Washington' had come to believe that Reg and Dad had drones 'on the shelf', which could be delivered at a moments notice.
Holloman asked Reg to lead off and tell about the proposal. Reg talked eloquently for five or ten minutes about all the wonderful things a target drone might do, but could not describe how they proposed to do it. They then asked Bill Banning if he could add to what Reg had told them. Bill said, "I am just here as a financial advisor." They then spent some time in quizzing Dad about what he and Reg actually had in mind and asked many technical questions relative to launching, control and landing.
After considerable discussion each side better understood the other. They knew what Dad and Reg proposed to do and their capabilities and they likewise knew much more about the military's requirements. Reg, Bill and Dad were then instructed to return to their hotel and write a new proposal along the lines they had just agreed upon. The officers said they would talk to Washington the following morning and try to straighten out a few misunderstandings. They returned to their hotel and started to work, which they finished about 2 am.
The next morning, Wednesday, they got up early, routed out a stenographer and had the proposal typed up. Then back to Wright Field to present them with a formal proposal. Things went a little better, but Washington was not entirely satisfactory. They wanted delivery by Oct. 1, 1938, which Dad and Reg could not promise. The officers at Wright Field were now on Dad and Reg's side and trying to help them, but Washington seemed adamant. It was suggested by Lt. Col. Volant, who was in charge of contracts, that they proceed with bid preparations and change all of their proposal figures to conform to Air Corps practice. They were to again confer with Washington the next morning.
Then it was back to the hotel after inviting Maj. Borum and Capt. Holloman to join them later in the cocktail lounge. During part of this day, while they were waiting for the appointment with Col. Volant, Maj. Borum took Reg, Bill and Dad on a "wonderful" sightseeing tour all over the field. They saw engines that they didn't know existed; also the Douglas "Flying Fortress" and a radio and gyro controlled transport. They were met about dark by Capt Holloman and after a cocktail were invited to the officers club for dinner. While drinking the cocktails, Maj. Borum said he had something of interest to us. He took a telegram from his pocket, which he read to them, "Authorized to proceed contract for radio controlled target, proposition two, on eight month basis." Boy, what a thrill!
Then the party was on. They all went to Capt. Holloman's house for a while and then on to officer's club for dinner accompanied by Mrs. Holloman and Mrs. Borum. Most of the group went to the "Wagon Wheel", the most popular bar in Dayton. Bill Banning and Dad excused themselves and went back to their hotel to work on the contract figures.
Bill lay down for a rest and Dad started calculating. Bill went to sleep and Dad was only disturbed by people phoning or knocking at the door wanting to see Reg Denny. At 5:30am Dad called the hotel desk and asked them to give him a wake-up call at 8:30am. The 8:30 telephone ring had no effect. A bellboy used a passkey and came in and woke him up. Dad woke Bill up and they both worked until 3:30pm when they finished the job. This was Thursday afternoon. Reg Denny decided to leave for home (after some encouragement from Bill and Dad). He had said his piece and said it well and there was no reason at all for him to stay longer.
Friday May 13, 1938. Their contract passed the procurement section with a total figure of just over $18000 but the girl in the office didn't have time to finish typing the actual contract. Bill Banning agreed to stay over and sign it Saturday morning while Dad caught a sleeper train to Cleveland Friday night. His plan was to take a few days off and visit friends and relatives in Oberlin, Ohio, Long Island, New York and Pine Plains, New York.
Bill Banning returned home with an experimental contract to build three target drones. The May 3 1938 contract was very flexible regarding specific details of design, and only specified maneuverability and performance. The details about the requirements were that the drones had to be delivered within one year. The drones had to "in general, look like an airplane". They had to be able to be launched from the ground, controlled in the air by radio and be landed within a quarter of a mile from the launching spot when they brought them down. Col. Holloman would become their closest contact in the future and Dad's good friend.
After a year of experimental building and testing at Muroc Dry Lake, the first three drones were completed and satisfactorily test flown by May 1939. In developing and building these three experimental drones, it was necessary not only to design and build a drone that would be inherently stable, but to design and develop an entirely new type of engine and also a radio and control mechanism. With the exception of the actual design of the radio, Dad did all the engineering and design work. The radio itself was designed and built by Ken Case under Dad's direction.
After building the three experimental drones and getting them approved other additional orders were being filled for drones and engines in continually increasing quantities. It became necessary that the Righter Mfg. Co. move to larger quarters in a new building especially built at 800 South Flower Street in Burbank, CA. The move was made on July 1, 1941.
The Radioplane Co., a California corporation, was formed for the building of the target drones, and they took over the manufacturing rights from the Reginald Denny Industries. For a time the Radioplane Co. leased shop space from the Righter Mfg. Co. for building the first small orders for drones. At this time Walter H. Righter served in the capacity of Chief Engineer and Production Manager for the Radioplane Co. and also was a member of their Board of Directors, as well as owner and General Manager of the Righter Mfg. Co..
Due to increased production, and the diminishing lack of space, it became necessary in March 1942, for the Radioplane Co. to move to larger quarters in Van Nuys, CA, at which time it was desirable for Dad to devote his entire time to engine building. He therefore, resigned from the Radioplane Co. Board of Directors and also resigned as Chief Engineer.
In 1942 the cost of the drones was $500 to $600 and some 15 to 20,000 were produced.
Whitley C. Collins served as president of the Radioplane Co. from 1939 until July 1952, when it was purchased by Northrop Aircraft Inc. Whit Collins continued to head the Radioplane Co. subsidiary, until 1953, when he was elected president of Northrop Aircraft, Inc. In August 1959, the Radioplane Co. became the Radioplane Division of Northrop Corporation. Whitley Collins died in 1959. On April 2, 1962 the Radioplane Division become Northrop Corporation, Ventura Division.
In order to make motherhood less stressful for my mother, Dad was stuck with me very much of the time. It was a blessing for me. Starting when I was six years old, he took me to the desert for almost all the drone test flights and I had the privilege of meeting a number of the men mentioned above. I of course, could not interfere in anyway or ask questions and stayed at a distance and watched, so the men never seemed to mind me being there and were all nice to me. Col. Holloman I liked very much. He eventually became a Brig. General and Holloman Air Force Base was named after him.
Maj. "Pop" Powers, who also was very interested in the project, became General Powers. He was very enthusiastic and popular among the guys. When at home and answering the phone it could be someone in Washington calling or the Military, Ken Case, Reg Denny, Don or Paul Whittier, Whit Collins, the FBI or Andy Divine another actor who loved to fly and had his plane parked near ours at Whiteman Air Park, Howard Hughes, Bert Warner or Col. Thiele, etc. It was a very interesting fun time for a little girl to be growing up in lucky me !